Since it started in its current format as the NFL’s main primetime package in 2006, the defining feature of NBC’s Sunday Night Football has been the use of flexible scheduling to ensure the best matchups and showcase the best teams as the season goes along. Well, that’s the theory, anyway; the reality has not always lived up to the initial hype and has at times seemed downright mystifying. Regardless, I’m here to help you figure out what you can and can’t expect to see on Sunday nights on NBC.
A full explanation of all the factors that go into flexible scheduling decisions can be found on my NFL Flexible Scheduling Primer, but here’s the Cliffs Notes version with all the important points you need to know:
- The season can be broken down into three different periods (four if you count the first four weeks where flexible scheduling does not apply at all) for flexible scheduling purposes, each with similar yet different rules governing them: the early flex period, from weeks 5 to 10; the main flex period, from weeks 11 to 17; and week 18. In years where Christmas forces either the Sunday afternoon slate or the Sunday night game to Saturday in Week 16, flex scheduling does not apply that week, and the main flex period begins week 10. Note: This year NBC’s press release indicated that the main flex period begins in Week 11 even though Christmas falls on Sunday. I’m assuming this is correct and the result of NBC still being able to have six weeks in the main flex period despite this because of the expansion of the season.
- In all cases, only games scheduled for Sunday may be moved to Sunday night. Thursday and Monday night games are not affected by Sunday night flexible scheduling (discounting the “flexible scheduling” applied to Saturdays in December in recent years – see below).
- During the early and main flex periods, one game is “tentatively” scheduled for Sunday night and listed with the Sunday night start time of 8:20 PM ET. This game will usually remain at that start time and air on NBC, but may be flexed out for another game and moved to 1, 4:05, or 4:25 PM ET on Fox or CBS, no less than 12 days in advance of the game.
- No more than two games can be flexed to Sunday night over the course of the early flex period. If the NFL wishes to flex out a game in the early flex period twelve days in advance, CBS and Fox may elect to protect one game each from being moved to Sunday night. This is generally an emergency valve in situations where the value of the tentative game has plummeted since the schedule was announced, namely in cases of injury to a key star player.
- CBS and Fox may also each protect games, historically in five out of six weeks of the main flex period, but all of those protections must be submitted after week 5, week 4 in years where the main flex period begins week 10 (so it is always six weeks before the start of the main flex period).
- No team may appear more than six times across the league’s three primetime packages on NBC, ESPN, and Fox/NFL Network, and only three teams are allowed to appear that often, with everyone else getting five. In addition, no team may appear more than four times on NBC. All teams’ number of appearances heading into this season may be seen here.
- According to the league’s official page, teams are notified when “they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.” However, they rarely make this known to the fans, and the list of each network’s protections has never officially been made public. It used to leak fairly regularly, but has not leaked since 2014.
- In all cases, the NFL is the ultimate arbiter of the schedule and consults with CBS, Fox, and NBC before moving any games to prime time. If the NFL does elect to flex out the Sunday night game, the network whose game is flexed in may receive the former tentative game, regardless of which network would “normally” air it under the “CBS=AFC, Fox=NFC” rules, keeping each network’s total number of games constant. At the same time, the NFL may also move games between 1 PM ET and 4:05/4:25 PM ET. However, this feature focuses primarily if not entirely on Sunday night flexible scheduling.
- In Week 18, the entire schedule is set on only six days notice, ensuring that NBC gets a game with playoff implications, generally a game where the winner is the division champion. More rarely, NBC may also show an intra-division game for a wild card spot, or a game where only one team wins the division with a win but doesn’t win the division with a loss, but such situations are rare and 2018 and 2020, respectively, were the first times it showed such games. If no game is guaranteed to have maximum playoff implications before Sunday night in this fashion, the league has been known not to schedule a Sunday night game at all. To ensure maximum flexibility, no protections or appearance limits apply to Week 17. The NFL also arranges the rest of the schedule such that no team playing at 4:25 PM ET (there are no 4:05 games Week 17) could have their playoff fate decided by the outcome of the 1 PM ET games, which usually means most if not all of the games with playoff implications outside Sunday night are played at 4:25 PM ET, except for two games moved to Saturday to be simulcast on ESPN and ABC.
Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:
Week 11 (November 20):
- Selected game: Kansas City @ LA Chargers.
Week 12 (November 27):
- Selected game: Green Bay @ Philadelphia.
Week 13 (December 4):
- Selected game: Indianapolis @ Dallas.
Week 14 (December 11):
- Selected game: Miami @ LA Chargers.
Week 15 (December 18):
- Selected game: NY Giants @ Washington.
Week 17 (January 1):
- Tentative game: LA Rams @ LA Chargers
- Prospects: Effectively flexed out already with the Chargers now maxed out on primetime appearances without it. The Rams’ surprisingly woeful season has sealed its fate.
- Likely protections: Vikings-Packers (CBS) and Saints-Eagles, Jets-Seahawks, or nothing (FOX).
- Other possible games: Jets-Seahawks still has the major advantage that it’s currently pinned to the late singleheader slot, which is the kind of game the league tends to prefer to flex in (especially when the tentative is also on the West Coast), but it’s lost a lot of luster as both teams have struggled and both are now out of the playoffs. That might just tip the scale to Dolphins-Patriots, though that game is still more likely to affect the Week 18 schedule (though Rams-Seahawks could be a contender for a Saturday move if the standings work out right). Steelers-Ravens, Browns-Maroons, and Niners-Raiders remain dark horses. An intriguing possibility is emerging as a result of the NFC South tire fire: Panthers-Bucs could be for the division lead by the time it’s played… but then, so could Bucs-Falcons the following week.
- Analysis: If the decision was made today I would definitely still favor Jets-Seahawks; it’s still a game between teams in playoff contention and Dolphins-Patriots is only a game better on one side of the ledger. The problem is that both teams have losable games this week and don’t really look much like playoff material anymore… yet the same could be said for the Patriots, despite them pulling away in the second half against Arizona on Monday. More to the point, barring a crossflex losing Dolphins-Patriots would leave CBS with Steelers-Ravens as their best early game, though the situation isn’t quite as dire as when Eagles-Giants was in a similar situation some weeks back, as the Steelers are at least on the periphery on the playoff picture and Fox has both Browns-Maroons and Panthers-Bucs available in the early window. How the Steelers and Browns do this week may have more of an impact on how much CBS can afford to lose Dolphins-Patriots than on their own games’ chances to be flexed.
Speaking of Panthers-Bucs, though, it might actually be the biggest threat to the other two, though it may be Fox’s equivalent to Dolphins-Patriots, and I would imagine it would require the Bucs and Panthers to win this week and the Falcons to lose to minimize the potential that Bucs-Falcons could decide the NFC South dependent on the result of Panthers-Bucs. Then again, maybe not; appearing on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football” last week, NFL Vice President of Broadcast Planning Michael North suggested that the Week 18 schedule might not be set until after the Bills-Bengals Monday night game in Week 17, and while that likely applies more to the Sunday afternoon slate (which has been held until after the Monday night game in the past) than the Saturday or Sunday night games, it’s not like the league has much of a history of taking that sort of thing into account when setting the penultimate Sunday night game anyway. (Incidentally, in the same “GMFB” appearance Senior Broadcast Manager Charlotte Carey said of the decision to crossflex Lions-Jets to CBS this week, where it’ll be their lead early game, “you don’t want your first time seeing a [playoff] team to be in January.” I may be reading too much into this, but since that statement seemed to encompass both teams, that might not be a good sign for the chances of Jets-Seahawks even if both teams are in playoff position, since then crossflexing Lions-Jets wouldn’t be necessary for that purpose in the Jets’ case. Of course, technically this game would be in January…) If they do want to minimize the chance of needing to wait for the Sunday night game to set, at minimum, the Saturday games (themselves dependent on the Sunday night game), though, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pull another six-day hold out of their ass, though that would require deferring the decision to either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day when league officials would really prefer not to have to be working.
Week 18 (January 8):
- Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
- Games to watch: Bucs-Falcons, Patriots-Bills, Ravens-Bengals, Lions-Packers, Texans-Colts (stop laughing), Titans-Jaguars, Jets-Dolphins, Giants-Eagles, Browns-Steelers, Cowboys-NotIndians, Chargers-Broncos, Rams-Seahawks. Part of the reason for why this list is so much longer this week is taking a closer eye at what games might be selected for Saturday. I’ve put together the “cheat sheet” I promised last year; let’s see if it helps me put together this section with the percentage chances for each game faster next week.